The UK telecom incumbent says it has been talking with the government about earning the full return on its investment in Huawei products.

Iain Morris, International Editor

October 13, 2021

3 Min Read
BT aims to keep Huawei for fiber until early 2030s

BT is urging the British government to let it retain Huawei in its fixed broadband network until the early 2030s so that it can avoid running up additional costs to replace fiber equipment.

The UK telecom incumbent is working toward compliance with a government rule limiting Huawei products to 35% of an operator's fiber access footprint by 2023. But it will resist any move to ban the supplier this decade as it tries to minimize network disruption and sweat fiber assets it has already deployed.

"Our intention is to ensure that we get the full economic life out of the Huawei FTTP [fiber-to-the-premises] kit that we have deployed, and we think that takes us to 2031, 2032," said Howard Watson, BT's chief technology officer, on the sidelines of this year's Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam. "We've been talking with government about that timescale."


The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has recently been in consultation with UK operators about Huawei's role in fiber broadband and is expected to publish guidance in a forthcoming Designated Vendor Direction (DVD) paper.

Operators must limit Huawei to 35% of their 5G networks by 2023 and have removed it entirely by the end of 2027.

Last year, the government stopped short of imposing a similar ban on Huawei in the fixed-line sector because it was concerned about the lack of alternatives.

In a paper released in July 2020, the UK's National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) noted "there is only one other scale vendor in this sector," an apparent reference to Finland's Nokia. The NCSC went on to say that "over-reliance on any vendor is bad from a security and resiliency point of view."

At the time, BT's Openreach networks business was already using products from both Huawei and Nokia to power its full-fiber deployment. It has subsequently begun rolling out fiber equipment supplied by Adtran, a North American firm with a small share of the global market but a strong presence in some European countries.

"It has already impacted the fixed side," said Watson about government restrictions on Huawei. "In 2023, on households being built and in progress, we need to be at no more than 35% and the Openreach team are absolutely working toward that. And on the back of that we are actually doing a lot of Nokia build at the moment and we've introduced Adtran as a third vendor there, and so we're making good progress."

While BT has not indicated the percentage of premises served by each separate vendor, the DCMS put Huawei's share of the UK full-fiber market at 44% in December, against just 35% in mobile access.

Stripping out would be costly and disruptive. BT expects to invest about £12 billion ($16.4 billion) on extending fiber to roughly 25 million UK premises by 2026. It has now covered about 5 million homes with the high-speed technology, relying heavily on Huawei so far.

The operator previously estimated that stripping Huawei out of its mobile network and complying with a 35% fiber cap would cost about £500 million ($682 million).

UK authorities have taken the view that Huawei's Chinese identity makes it a threat to national security. They have argued that China's government could rely on "backdoors" in Huawei products to spy on other countries or even bring down critical infrastructure.

Experts reckon fixed-line networks may be less vulnerable to any security threats than mobile ones. "In general, mobile appears to be less secure than fiber-based technology," Julie Kunstler, a principal analyst with Omdia, recently told Light Reading.

The security threat in mobile could be heightened by the role 5G might play in a future "Internet of Things" comprising billions of everyday objects.

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— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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